To distill the experience of The Zone to a single sentence, one could say this: The imagined becoming reality.
To play a match in which virtually you can execute any shot imaginable requires innumerable hours of practice and dedication. It also requires a willingness to labor through scores of matches where you can only execute most, or maybe just some of your desires on court.
A pair of recurring themes in most Zone-like performances, though, are 1) familiarity, 2) favorability, and 3) motivation.
Pete Sampras turned in his best performance of his career in the 1999 finals of Wimbledon, against Andre Agassi. He played Agassi 23 times prior to this (winning 13 of them) on grass, a surface that favored him. As Agassi was about to overtake him at No. 1, Sampras was motivated to prove his dominance.
The two most awe-inspiring results of Roger Federer’s career were at the 2004 US Open final and the semis of the 2007 Australian Open. In both cases, his opponents, Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick, had no surprises for him in their approach. Their game plans suited his approach because their strengths were only fragments of his whole arsenal; yet they were unambiguous in their desire to overtake him, thus providing him the motivation he needed.
For Martina Hingis, perfect conditions intersected the 1997 US Open final. Her opponent was 17-year-old Venus Williams, who had won all of her first six matches at the Open to reach her first Grand Slam final.
New as she was to the tour, Williams was still somewhat familiar to Hingis, who’d beaten her twice earlier in the year. Though the Swiss Miss had won two of the year’s previous three majors and was the undisputed No. 1, seeing a rising raw talent of an age similar to hers surely motivated Hingis to bring her best game.
But what about favorability? In retrospect, we all know that one day Venus, her sister Serena, and a few others would overpower Hingis, evicting her from the top spot and eventually driving her from the game.
In 1997, however, young Venus Williams was the most favorable of opponents for the young Swiss. She encountered variations of the same approach from the lumbering Lindsay Davenport and the erratic Mary Pierce, and had shown little difficulty in dispatching them due to their lack of variety.
“(Williams) plays the game I like: She tries to keep the ball in play,” Hingis was quoted as saying by Sports Illustrated. "That's too dangerous if you play me.”
While they all hit harder than her, they had not a fraction of her court sense, her placement, and her ability to deflect an opponent’s pace to her advantage. In the case of Davenport and Pierce, she was also much superior in court coverage.
The supremely athletic Williams could have presented a unique challenge for Hingis in that she had more outright speed than the Swiss, but once play began it was apparent that she was still the pupil, and Hingis the young professor.
The Swiss didn’t hit harder; she hit earlier, especially on service returns, surprising her opponent.
“… my serve is not a big weapon I have in my game,” she said after the match. “I have to have something else. That's my return.”
She also had the hard courts of the US Open to perfect her approach. They were fast enough to allow her opponents to generate the pace she thrived on, slow enough to prevent big servers from blowing her off the court. At the year's previous hard court slam in Australia, Hingis didn't lose a set. At the US Open that stat was about to be duplicated.
She didn’t outrun Williams, rather she got her on the run, hit behind her, and used her craftily disguised two-hander, hitting in directions Williams did not expect.
Williams, hair still adorned with the festive beads she favored in her youth, didn’t play her best under these conditions; she didn’t yet know how to. A few games into the match it was clear she was foundering, but for Hingis the pressure was off, and her typically solid backhand became even smoother, as easy as thought itself.
Such play left the American so uncomfortable that she committed 17 errors in the first six games, all of them won by the Swiss. She settled herself for the second set, holding on to win four games, but could not stay with Hingis. In just over an hour, the young Swiss wrapped it up, 6-0, 6-4.
Williams could only manage a total of four games which, incidentally, was the average number of games all of Hingis’ opponents in the tournament were able to win against her.
That Open was the finishing touch on her most dominant season, having won three majors in singles, captured 12 singles titles altogether and lost all of six matches the entire season.
She looked unstoppable at the time, but as we all know, that would change. Perhaps the turning point was the 1998 final Hingis lost to a fitter, slimmer Davenport. Maybe it was when Serena Williams beat her in the ’99 final.
Or, perhaps Venus herself tolled the last bell in the 2000 Wimbledon quarters, when she overcame Hingis in route to her first major. Any way you look at it, the new generation of power baseliners, eventually known as the Big Babes, proved less and less favorable from Hingis’ perspective.
It wasn’t always that way, though. There once was a time when all the big hitters were just familiar, favorable and motivating enough to make the Swiss Miss’ ideas into reality.
Thanks to Hingis (and YouTube), fans of her approach will always have that one match to savor.
To read the previous installment, "In the Zone with Stefan Edberg" by Leroy Watson, click here.